How can churches help victims of domestic abuse?

by
22 November 2019

If they handle it badly, churches can endanger victims who make a disclosure. Sarah Lothian looks at how to respond

istock

Who is pulling the strings? ‘Domestic abuse’ includes, but is not limited to, psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse. The term describes a range of controlling and coercive behaviours, used by one person to maintain control over another

Who is pulling the strings? ‘Domestic abuse’ includes, but is not limited to, psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse. The term...

ON MONDAY, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Christian charity Restored is launching a 16-day campaign, “Be An Event of Grace”.

“Breaking free and recovering from domestic abuse requires many ‘events of grace’, that occur in God’s time and through a supportive community,” a co-director of Restored, Mandy Marshall, explains. Through small actions carried out each day of the campaign, the organisation is encouraging people to be a “conduit of God’s grace” to survivors of domestic abuse.

In March 2017, the House of Bishops updated its domestic-abuse guidance, which was laid out in the report Responding Well to Domestic Abuse, published by the Archbishops’ Council (News, 17 March 2017). It states a commitment to victims and survivors in the strongest terms: “Domestic abuse in all its forms is contrary to the will of God and an affront to human dignity. All need to play their part in preventing or halting it.”

Yet awareness of the issues in churches is still patchy. Kudakwashe Nyakudya, a domestic-abuse survivor, now educates faith communities on the realities of abuse. “Many Christians will not accept the problem is there,” she says. “Where you have domestic abuse, you have deception by the perpetrator, and people need to see the truth. Where I’ve seen churches that are trying their best, it’s because the pastor has some kind of knowledge.”

Ms Marshall says: “There are some churches that think: yes, it’s important, it’s about safeguarding, and my safeguarding person will deal with it. Well, good, but everybody needs it on their agenda. Then there are some where it’s just not on their agenda at all, and they reduce it to relationship issues. But that’s not what it is. This is about abuse of power and control.”

Research carried out by Restored, with Coventry University and the University of Leicester, published last year (News, 23 March 2018), asked churchgoers in Cumbria about their attitudes to and experiences of domestic abuse. One in four respondents reported having experienced at least one abusive act in a current relationship. And only two in seven churchgoers considered their church to be adequately equipped to deal with a disclosure of domestic abuse.

 

SO, HOW should a church respond to a report of domestic abuse?

The Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight, in partnership with Restored, provides specialist training for churches and Christian organisations on how to respond safely, and care for and support those in churches who are affected by domestic abuse. The head of consultancy and engagement at Thirtyone:eight, Karen Eakins, says that, first and foremost, it is important that churches promote a message of being a safe place.

“Those who are experiencing abuse are far more likely to share their experiences if they feel it will be responded to in a supportive way,” she says. “Domestic abuse can be a very complex and dangerous form of abuse. It is, therefore, important that churches work together with local specialist agencies to ensure that they respond in a safe and supportive manner.

“Sadly, the response of the Church to such abuse, unintentionally, has, on occasions, placed women at greater risk.

“It is important that the individual’s experiences are listened to and validated. It is quite likely that what you are hearing is just part of the depth of their experience of abuse. There are likely to have been several barriers to overcome for them to feel able to share their experience. Best practice is to listen, as a priority, in a non-judgemental manner.

“It is also important to ensure the safety of all those involved, including children. It is known that, at the point of disclosure, a woman or man is at greater risk. Safety is paramount.”

In terms of ongoing support and pastoral provision, Mrs Eakins says, pastoral support can be provided alongside specialist support. “However, it is advisable that separate pastoral support is provided to both parties in the relationship.”

“Even in large churches, experience has shown that it is tremendously difficult — and potentially conflicting and unsafe — for both parties to remain at the same church. It may be appropriate for both parties to be pastorally cared for and supported by the church; however, it is again important to listen to and respect the choice of the victim.”

 

RESTORED has published a downloadable online church pack (free, but there is a suggested donation of £5). It has a helpful list of “dos” and “don’ts” when responding to both an alleged victim and a perpetrator of domestic abuse.

The pack promotes the four “Rs” of response to domestic abuse:

Recognise the signs of power and control in a relationship, and that abuse does happen in Christian relationships.

Respond within your limitations and the safeguarding framework, especially if children are involved.

Refer to the National Domestic Violence Helpline (0808 2000 247), and to local professionals. Go with the victim, if you can.

Record dates, times, and quotations of what has been said. Record your actions and any concerns that you may have, and keep your notes in a safe place.

In Responding Well to Domestic Abuse, Section 2.1.1 of the guidance includes a flowchart of action that should be taken after a disclosure of domestic abuse. Again, the initial response is to listen and to believe any disclosure.

In reality, many women speaking up about various kinds of abuse experience are not believed. In a newspaper column in August, relating to the accusations regarding Prince Andrew, the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde referred to the “she-he” ratio: the number of women accusers needed before an accusation is taken seriously.

She noted: “Epstein got away lightly with his grotesque plea deal, because 50-something:1 isn’t the ratio you need. Even last year, they still needed 60 accusers to stop Bill Cosby. Donald Trump’s 17:1 she-he ratio is nowhere near enough to keep him from the highest office on the planet.”

What happens if the she-he ratio is 1:1? The campaigner Natalie Collins says: “We presume innocent until proven guilty, but how does that apply in cases of interpersonal crime, where there often aren’t other witnesses, and the corroborating evidence is one person’s word against another?

“My experience and understanding is that it is very, very rare that someone lies about being abused.

“Abusers operate in very similar ways, and once you’re a specialist in this issue you recognise the same abusive tactics used over and over again by many, if not all, abusers. It’s not even a he said/she said, it’s: he said/she lied.”

The Revd Helen Paynter, a Baptist minister, is director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence (Features, 1 February). She warns that the consequences of not believing women can be fatal: “The harm that might come to the wife through believing the husband far exceeds the harm that might come to the husband through believing the wife.”

“Domestic abuse is a criminal offence,” Mrs Eakins says. “It is not the role of the church to hold the abuser to account. There are other routes of justice and protection that can be sought through the legal system.

“However, if a church knows that a member of their congregation has a history of perpetrating domestic abuse, or is currently alleged to have abused, it would be essential to explore and assess the risk they may pose to others within the church, or to other churches, and to do so in the context of any roles they may hold within the church.”

 

IF A church leader, or someone else holding a church office, is accused of domestic abuse, the diocesan safeguarding adviser should be informed. “It is important that this is reported to the appropriate statutory agency: if a criminal offence has been alleged, this will be the police. The leader would need to be stood down from their role while the alleged offence was investigated. The Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO), together with the police, would advise and assess whether the individual could return to their role upon the outcome of the investigation.”

Domestic abuse, by its nature, can be difficult to provide evidence of, however, and there are occasions where there is insufficient evidence, or, for other reasons, a prosecution is not pursued.

“In such situations, if the individual is in a position of trust, any associated risk- factors will need to be explored,” Mrs Eakins says. An independent risk-assessment can be sought, she says. “Organisations should also consider other organisational processes, if relevant and appropriate: for example, the Clergy Discipline Measure [CDM], or other disciplinary processes.”

The journalist and broadcaster Andrew Graystone warns, however, that, in situations where a member of the clergy is an alleged perpetrator, the CDM process is not accountable enough: “You effectively have clergy making judgements about clergy. Bishops are conflicted with multiple responsibilities and they are not equipped to be investigators or judges: it simply is not part of their skill set.

“It’s like asking the chief constable to make a judgement on whether a member of their force should be investigated — there are pressures on them that won’t necessarily serve the truth, or serve the victim. Independent scrutiny and independent expertise is what’s really needed, and I want to know what the Church is so afraid of?”
 

www.un.org
www.restoredrelationships.org

 

Where to find help

Thirtyone:eight provides a safeguarding helpline (0303 003 1111).

Church House’s Responding Well to Domestic Abuse: Policy and practice guidance can be viewed online at www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/responding-well-to-domestic-abuse-formatted-master-copy-030317.pdf.

Restored has produced a free handbook for female Christian survivors of domestic abuse. Email info@restoredrelationships.org. The church pack is online at www.restoredrelationships.org/resources/info/51.

Kudakwashe Nyakudya trains faith communities on the realities of domestic abuse. She can be contacted via Twitter (@KudaNyakudya).

Natalie Collins (@natweetalie) provides training on domestic abuse and gender justice.

The Safe Church Initiative by Onus (an organisation originally established as a social enterprise by Women’s Aid) has been endorsed by the Cinnamon Network:

onustraining.co.uk/playing-your-part/how-you-can-become-a-safe-church.

Broken Rites offers support when clergy marriages break down: brokenrites.org

Respect.uk men’s advice website: respect.uk.net.

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